The Head Bangy Life of Selling to the Bookstores

“Why isn’t my book in the bookstore?”

Editors ’round the country hear this on a daily basis from their frustrated authors. Believe me, the editors are even more frustrated. Since there’s so much angst dancing on the air currents, I thought I’d explain part of an editor’s head bangy life of selling to the bookstores.


Ever since the Great Publishing Implosion of 2008, booksellers have smaller budgets every season, so they’re very cheap chincy leery about buying books. Seems contradictory, doesn’t it? But what they’re looking for is the Sure Thing…books that will guar-an-damn-tee that they won’t sit on the shelves for long. In a word, books that have Demand.

And here lies the problem – especially for the debut author

Fear Factor

Debut authors are an unknown quantity, so booksellers want to know what they’re doing to promote the book. Yes, even those with mahvelous platforms. So we make sure to provide a comprehensive promo plan so booksellers know what steps are being taken to make buyers aware of the book’s existence.

But these promo plans aren’t good enough because booksellers have too big a fear factor going on. They shy away from making the big orders…preferring to lean toward the tepid, limp orders.

So right off the bat, the book is under-stocked in the stores, and when the promotion creates a gynormous demand, the bookstores are caught with their Vickie Secrets down around their ankles. Then they begin screaming all at once for books. This can create a logjam as books are whooshed out to warehouse distributors, chain warehouses, and indie stores.

Not Available

What invariably happens is the warehouse distributors run out of stock with the huge demand for books, and the book is listed as Back Ordered or Not Available – depending on who’s doing the keypunching. So let’s say you, Joe or Jane Reader waltz into your local B&N or indie and see the book isn’t on the shelf, you ask about ordering it. “Ah, so sorry, Charlie,” the bookstore clerk says, “the book is back ordered. Can’t get it.”

You walk out frustrated, and the store lost a sale. All because of the Fear Factor. Now they could have easily put in an order for the book and let you know when it comes in, but they’re happier to just lose the sale.

Yes, I realize that publishers have told stores their new book is a fer shur thang, and they need to order 50k units – only to have those stores eat those 50k units. Sure, they can send those books back to the publisher, but they’ve already eaten up part of their budget on those books. If a publisher does this too many times, they lose all credibility and booksellers will refuse to order their books. So instead of running the risk of eating into their budget, the stores wait to see how many people really want the book. It’s a game of playing catch up, and it drives us batshit crazy.


Back in the day – when a few things made more sense – publishers gauged their print runs off of the pre-orders (orders taken before the book comes out). But nowadays the pre-orders are weency and not a true reflection of the true sales potential.

So now we gotta guess at our print runs. Which sucks stale Twinkie cream.

And this isn’t just me. I asked my cohorts in crime at a writer’s con, and all of them – large presses and small – are experiencing the same frustrations. We are getting little to no feedback from the booksellers as to whether they’ll support a title or not. It’s all based on demand.

I had an author who was quite upset with me wondering why his book wasn’t stocked in a biggie indie bookstore that he’d wandered into. The manager looked it up and saw that the book was listed as Unavailable – which was bullpucky…it was On Backorder because the book had exploded far faster than booksellers had thought and everyone was scampering for books. It’s a happy problem to have, but frustrating nonetheless.

The Art of Deflection

What the store manager managed to deftly avoid was answering the question as to WHY he hadn’t ordered my author’s book in the first place. So my author vents his spleen at me. I had to tell him the hard truth: this hoo ha bookstore hadn’t ordered his book because there was no demand for it, which confused him because the book has been selling like ice on a hot day. But not every single store in the US will have that demand, which is something he doesn’t understand. Few do.

And deflect is what bookstores do. It’s very hard for a bookseller to explain the facts of life to an author who’s standing in front of them with their arms crossed and streams of fire shooting out their nose. It’s a lot easier to blame the publisher.

“It says here that your book can’t be ordered.”
“So sorry, it’s unavailable.”
“Must be your publisher’s fault.”

And this puts us in a precarious position with our authors because anything we say makes us sound defensive.

The Argh Moment

So it’s a world gone nutsy. Bookstores exist to sell books. But that venture is becoming increasingly difficult. Yet those very bookstores decry the likes of Amazon and B& Well, you can’t have it both ways. You either sell books or you don’t.

Again, I more than understand the pickle that bookstores are in. But crikey, we’ve given them a completely insane idea of accepting returns, thereby putting all the risk on the publisher.  We already discount our products with an ever-increasing percentage. What more do they want?

I don’t know how to fix bookstores. All I know is that having big selling books don’t appear to be enough to get them stocked in sufficient quantities. And this is a problem that all of us are encountering – not just small fry publishers.

Pet Peeve

And you know what really flattens my tires? The new Justin Bieber “memoir” will be front and center in every damn store from here to NY and all points in between while us editors are fighting to get quality books that have great substance and demand on those same shelves. Talk about an empty vessel…

My other pet peeve – and this is a huge one – is when bookstores tell a customer that they “can’t order the book.” So what does the customer do? They either order from Amazon, or they call the publisher. To. Order. One. Book.

I hate this. I really, really hate this. This means I have to have an invoice generated and sent out, wait for the payment, then remember to send the damn book. One. Freaking. Book. All because some fecal brain at the bookstore was too lazy to do his job – which is sell books. And what’s worse, is it becomes a reflection on the publisher. With friends like this, who needs enemies, yanno?

11 Responses to The Head Bangy Life of Selling to the Bookstores

  1. Melissa says:

    So if an author is debuting his first novel, what should he tell that audience he has been been carefully cultivating? What is the best way to avoid problems but still support the author?

  2. Melissa says:

    Ugh. I tried wording so carefully and still screwed it up. I MEANT, what is the best way for them to buy the book?

  3. NinjaFingers says:

    And people wonder why Amazon is taking over.

  4. Tara Maya says:

    Gotta admit, I bought Jan’s Story on Amazon. I just assumed (sorry) it would be hard to find in a brick-and-mortar, and anyway, I bought it at 2 am and started reading it 3 minutes later on my Kindle. (I’m very glad you guys made it available to the Kindle!) I do love bookstores, but they almost never have the books I want, when I want. I go mostly for the joy of being surrounded by books.

  5. Sally Zigmond says:

    This happened to me. I went into a big chain bookstore in my old home town where my novel is set (where I had my launch) and which had recently done a late but welcome big spread in the local press. No copies on the shelves! Not one. So I asked. The manager practically bit my hand off. Are we pleased to see you! We can’t get enough copies, she said. We have so many on back order and have to turn potential buyers away. (Aargh!) Sort out your publisher. So I did and they said that they and their distributors have plenty of copies but that the bookstore’s central warehouse was to blame as there was some log-jam in the system.

    It’s so frustrating.

  6. Frank Mazur says:

    Bookstore evolution… I bought my first book, BATTLE CRY, at the Turner Book Store in my hometown—that’s what was on the marquee over the entrance. Strangely, there weren’t more than 50 books in the entire story (and I could probably include their accounting books in the number). For the curious, the cover price of BC was $3.95, but was on sale for one dollar. Perhaps they didn’t do returns back then?

  7. Melissa: if the book has bookstore placement, then tell readers they can find your book in bookstores and on Amazon, etc. If readers don’t find the book in their local store, they can either try to have the store order it, or they can go to Amazon. It’s those readers who come into stores asking for the book that create the demand for the store to carry the book.

    Tara: no apologies required. I read Kindle exclusively, so I get that. The book is in many, many, many stores across the country, I just don’t know which ones.

    Sally! Long time no hear! You bring up a very common problem. The friend of one of my authors owns a small indie and told my author that he’d been unable to get the book for six weeks because it was on backorder. So my author casts a testy eye at me. Not so, sez I. We have plenty of books in the warehouse.

    Now, where it goes after they leave our warehouse is entirely out of our control. It could have been that Ingram or Baker & Taylor were fulfilling the larger orders first, or this indie store’s order got lost in the shuffle.

    But it’s far easier to blame the publisher or their distributor than it is to look at the real problem. As you say, it’s frustrating. I want to be supportive of bookstores, but when we have to work so dang hard just get the books on the shelves, then it’s no small wonder Amazon begins to look more attractive. They’re easy to work with and we get paid just the same.

  8. allen parker says:

    “They either order from Amazon, or they call the publisher. To. Order. One. Book.”

    I know this is different, but maybe it would work for you. One of my publishers sends us a dozen books when they print. Eight are for us, and four come with mailers and postage. If she gets an order over the phone or internet, she emails us a copy and we autograph the book and address the envelop, mailing it to the person. If we run low of books, she sends a half dozen with mailers and away we go again.

    It kind of puts the author in the loop, but the reader gets an autographed copy and the mailman gets a good workout.

    This keeps her from ordering one book. It gives us a chance to stick our card with the website in with the package.

    Of course, with niche markets, things are a little different. YMMV

  9. Meh…Allen, that is possible if the author isn’t flying all over the country promoting his book. At that rate, the reader wouldn’t get his autographed book for at least four months. Besides, it’s just one more headache for the publisher. It’s our job to cater to thousands, not to one.

    Mind you, I say this, and yet I had a phone call for another one of our books. The caller wanted five books. We got to talking, and I ended up giving her a big discount. “Oh!” sez she, “in that case, I want ten books.” Twang!

    So this is why I invariably grit my teeth and fulfill the onesie orders. Thankfully they are few and far between.

  10. Lynn, as usual, you’ve done a credible job attempting to explain the fuzzy concepts of small retail management realities. These all exist in some form floating in a nebulous ether. Getting one’s hands around it can be pretty tough, though. The “Onesie” order is so funny, it hurts!

    After my years of small retail business management, I can only add a few additional considerations for the debut author anxious to see the shelves populated with their new book.

    Make sure it’s the beginning of the month, and after lunch when you go in. Make an appointment first. If you have managed to finagle local press, bring tear sheets. Make up sample counter cards in full color printed out on your inkjet photo printer as well as a poster. They look great, but the bookseller won’t use them. It’s all for show. The focus should be on the money they’ll make by featuring your product. Nothing else matters to them.

    \If all else fails, offer to GIVE them five or six copies on consignment. 50-50 on the pricing. You collect when they sell, if they don’t sell, the store owes you nothing. It’s a sure thing. Everybody is looking for a sure thing, especially these days.

  11. Richard, I wince when I see authors trying to get their books into stores. That’s the publisher’s job. Period.

    It’s the author’s job to arrive at book events looking gorgeous or dashing, wearing a huge grin, and wowing the socks off readers.

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